Canadian-born comic Leslie Nielsen dies at 84
The Canadian Press
Published Monday, November 29, 2010 6:48PM EST
Shirley, he'll be missed.
Tributes to Canadian comic Leslie Nielsen poured in Monday from friends and fans ranging from Prime Minister Stephen Harper to actor Paul Gross, with fellow comedian Brent Butt remembering the "Airplane!" star as a man who loved nothing more than to get a laugh from those around him.
Nielsen died Sunday in Florida after battling pneumonia. He was 84.
Butt, who traded quips with the Regina-born Nielsen a few years back at a gala celebrating Saskatchewan's 100th birthday, recalled a good-natured prankster who had a child-like enthusiasm for performing.
"He definitely loved to entertain, he loved to try and get laughs all the time, that was kind of what he was about," Butt said Monday from the Vancouver set of his CTV sitcom "Hiccups."
"I don't think anyone who was within 500 yards of him didn't get to experience the 'fart machine,"' he added, referring to a handheld device Nielsen used to simulate flatulence.
"He was fast on that fart button and there was nothing that made him laugh more. He was like a five-year-old when he hit that thing."
Nielsen was best known for starring in the big screen comedies "Airplane!" and "The Naked Gun," in which he sent up disaster flicks and police procedurals with his trademark deadpan delivery applied to buffoonish heroes Dr. Rumack and Lt. Frank Drebin.
Rumack, the bumbling doctor who finds himself on a plane overcome by food poisoning, is credited with levelling one of the funniest lines in movie history. A passenger says: "Surely you can't be serious." Rumack's reply? "I am serious. And don't call me Shirley."
The role would cement Nielsen as the sultan of satire decades after beginning his career in all seriousness in the 1950s.
"It's been dawning on me slowly," Nielsen told the Globe and Mail in 1988 of his sharp turn into comedy, "that for the past 35 years I have been cast against type, and I'm finally getting to do what I really wanted to do."
Before "Airplane!," Nielsen's matinee good looks cast him in TV dramas including the suspense series, "Stage 13" and westerns "Daniel Boone" and "Wagon Train," and brought him big screen roles including the disaster epic, "The Poseidon Adventure," and the wartime thriller, "Night Train to Paris."
The '70s and '80s were dominated by light-hearted guest roles on classics including "The Love Boat," "MASH," and "Fantasy Island."
But it was "Airplane!" that set Nielsen on new a course of outrageous spoofs, with writer David Zucker noting that Nielsen, more than anyone, got the goofball humour he was after.
"Leslie, of everybody, was absolutely gung ho from the start," Zucker told The Canadian Press in 2000, noting that co-stars Robert Stack, Peter Graves and Lloyd Bridges had to be convinced to take part.
"He apparently told his agent 'I'll pay THEM!' "
Gross, who worked with Nielsen on the film "Men With Brooms" and in the TV series "Due South," saluted the star for his humour and spirit.
"Leslie's huge heart and fierce intelligence defined goofball comedy and he was its undisputed master," Gross said Monday in a statement.
"His loss will be felt by all. More personally he was a mentor and a friend. I will miss him terribly."
Harper added that he and his wife, Laureen, were saddened by the news.
"An Officer of the Order of Canada and with a star on the Canadian Walk of Fame, Nielsen is fondly remembered by fans around the world," Harper said Monday in a statement.
"We can be grateful that his most famous performances are preserved on film and will delight audiences for years to come."
Nielsen appeared in more than 100 films and hundreds of TV shows throughout his six-decade career, among them TV's "Police Squad" and CTV's "Robson Arms" and the big screen spoofs, "Dracula: Dead and Loving It," "Scary Movie 3" and "Scary Movie 4."
News of his death drew online tributes, with Twitter awash in testimonials:
"RIP Leslie Nielsen. Shirley, you'll be missed," tweeted Nia Vardalos.
"To this day 'Airplane' is still one of my favorite comedies ever," added Ryan Seacrest.
"A lovely man and acquaintance passed away today," said Marlee Matlin. "Leslie Nielsen. What a lovely, funny, talented man."
Butt said Nielsen's unique comic style delighted him as a kid, and as an adult, he found it "surreal" to be on the same stage as the film and TV legend.
"He was at his best comedically when he wasn't playing the comedy, when he was playing that straight dramatic guy and saying funny things," he said.
"He made me laugh so much as Frank Drebin."